Virginia Woolf- A Salon of Her Own

Becca Anderson, author of The Book of Awesome Women Writers, has written a new blog post on the life and career of legendary author Virginia Woolf.


One of the leaders of the modern literary movement, Virginia Woolf was born and raised in London to a family of letters; her father had an excellent reputation as a scholar and writer and authored The Dictionary of English Biography. Her mother moved in artistic circles and hosted Edward Burne- Jones, William Holman Hunt, G.F. Watts, and stage actress Ellen Terry. Virginia was also accustomed to having literati visit her home; her parents entertained their noteworthy friends Henry James, Lord Tennyson, poet George Meredith, and writer-ambassador James Russell Lowell. In addition to her sister Vanessa, young Virginia Stephen had two natural brothers, Thoby and Adrian, a stepsister, Stella, and two stepbrothers, Gerald and George Duckworth. Though father Leslie Stephen was learned, he was not necessarily socially progressive, believing the girls needed only to be educated at home.

Upon his death in 1905, the Stephen children shocked their relatives by closing the house they were raised in and relocating to Bloomsbury, a poorer neighborhood. There, they began to refashion life in accordance with their needs and interests. Thoby, a student at Cambridge and member of an underground organization, the Apostles, brought his friends over on Thursday evenings. These lively encounters quickly turned into a regular series of salons. This idyllic episode soon came to an end, however, when a group trip to Greece ended in Thoby dying of typhoid. A week later, still in mourning, Vanessa became engaged to Thoby’s dear friend Clive Bell and set up a household in a Gordon Square row house. In 1907, Adrian and Virginia also moved, to Fitzroy Square; they took a house formerly occupied by George Bernard Shaw. Brother and sister resumed holding salons in their new home, forming the true beginning of the Bloomsbury group. Virginia keenly enjoyed the high-minded exchanges these evenings afforded her; they were often the highlight of her week.

She was an extremely sensitive person given to occasional depressions and suicidal tendencies. She would go for long periods of time without eating and is thought by some scholars to have been anorexic. An inveterate diarist, we know much about her state of mind and sexual advances by her stepbrothers, as well as her doubts, fears, and dreams. Her diaries also showed the beginnings of her “stream of consciousness” writing technique, an impressionistic, associative style reflecting the outer world through the inner world. She would also gossip about the various members of the salon and its outer circles, the servants, and their extended family.

Her salons were attended by a lively and brilliant group of accomplished poets, artists, and practicing homosexuals—Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, and Duncan Grant. At first, Virginia was puzzled by their lack of interest in courting her, but she soon figured it out. Lytton Strachey developed an affection for Virginia and even went so far as to propose, confessing to his dear friend Leonard Woolf, at the time serving in Ceylon, “It would have been death if she had accepted me.” He also had a much-publicized affair with a female artist, Dora Carrington, who committed suicide.

By 1910, the esteemed art critic Roger Fry had joined the group, later embarking on an affair with Vanessa Bell, whose marriage to Clive Bell was strained from raising two sons and from Clive’s extramarital affairs. By 1911, Leonard Woolf returned from his India service and joined the Bloomsbury group, now living communally in Fitzroy. Leonard and Virginia married, but soon after the honeymoon period he noticed her bouts of despondency. When she attempted suicide, a frightened, deeply concerned Leonard took on the role of caretaker, watching her eating habits, her menstrual patterns, and her moods. His vigilance worked fairly well to keep her from sinking too low, but the depression she suffered was destined to return.

The members of the Bloomsbury group worked steadily. Virginia, Leonard Woolf, and Forster began writing their first novels. Virginia also became very concerned with feminism and began doing volunteer work for suffragists. To the disgust of British art critics, Roger Fry held two Post-Impressionist exhibits followed by poetry and furniture-craft workshops. Vanessa Bell’s skill in painting was developing rapidly, and her friendship with fellow painter Duncan Grant began to take a romantic turn. John Maynard Keynes was teaching his revolutionary economic theory at Cambridge, and Lytton was fast at work on his biographical survey, Eminent Victorians. By 1915, however, as their reputations were growing, the salon was held less frequently, and the group gradually began drifting apart.

The Woolfs purchased a printing press and moved to Richmond to found Hogarth Press soon after the publication of Virginia’s debut novel, The Voyage Out. Hogarth Press published other seminal writers from this time, including Sigmund Freud, Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. Virginia Woolf was repulsed by James Joyce’s work, however, and refused to publish him. Upon reading Ulysses, she recalled feeling as if “her very own pen had been seized from her hands so that someone might scrawl the word ‘f’ on the seat of a privy.”

Vanessa Bell found a great old farmhouse in Sussex, Charleston, and invited
the group to visit for parties, feasts, and weekend retreats. She threw Roger
Fry over for the openly gay Duncan, with whom she had a baby, Angelica. Upon the baby’s birth, the new father proclaimed that moment to be the end of their sexual relationship. One of Duncan Grant’s lovers, David Garnett, wrote a letter to Lytton expressing a perverse urge to shock everyone, “I think of marrying it; when she is twenty, I shall be forty-six—will it be scandalous?” The new parents were properly disgusted by this improper sentiment. (When Angelica grew up, she wrote the critically acclaimed book Deceived by Kindness.)

Leonard Woolf eventually sold Hogarth Press to Harcourt Brace and carried
on as Virginia’s editor. Virginia wrote steadily and gained a serious following for her originality and singular style. Leonard Woolf remained vigilant in his self-appointed role as overseer of Virginia’s mental and physical health, noting that the publication of each novel brought on one of her great depressions. His loyalty was unswerving, despite her affair with one of the writers they published, Vita Sackville-West, the subject of Virginia’s novel Orlando.

In 1941, she was at the peak of her career—a critical success with books such as To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, and mentor to a younger generation of writers, including Katherine Mansfield. But her fears for Leonard’s and her own safety during World War II brought extreme anxiety; she was convinced they were in grave danger because of Leonard’s Jewish heritage and fully expected to be captured and killed in a Nazi invasion. When she could bear it no more, she wrote a note to her beloved sister Vanessa and two notes to her husband: “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we’ve been.” She stuffed her pockets with heavy stones and walked into the river.

Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death.

Bernard, from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

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